‘Wasteland’ humanizes landfill workers

The Academy Award-nominated documentary “Wasteland” was screened at Yale on Monday as part of the University’s third annual Environmental Film Festival.
The Academy Award-nominated documentary “Wasteland” was screened at Yale on Monday as part of the University’s third annual Environmental Film Festival. Photo by Wasteland.

Even though the new documentary “Wasteland” was nominated for an Academy Award, it’s full of trash.

Yale University’s third annual Environmental Film Festival opened last night to a packed theater in the Whitney Humanities Center for the screening of the highly acclaimed “Wasteland,” directed by Lucy Walker. The film, which also won the Audience Award at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, chronicles the lives of the often marginalized “pickers of recyclable material,” a population of some 15 million unrecognized industrial workers who make their living in the world’s landfills.

In the film, New York artist and Brazilian native Vik Muniz traveled back to his native Rio de Janeiro to visit the Jardim Gramach, the largest landfill in the world, where he hoped to collaborate with the pickers to raise money and awareness for the cause. Before meeting his collaborators, Vik was unsure what form the final project would take, but knew he wanted to assimilate an iconography the recyclable material itself — which he soon found was the recyclable materials. Over the course of three years, Vik partnered with the workers to create massive self-portraits of the workers out of the recyclables, which were then photographed and released into the international art market for sale.

Tiao Santos, the leader of the “catadores,”⎯self-designated “pickers of recyclable materials,” is just one of the Gramach personalities who were profiled in the film.

“Not only did our time with Vik change my life, but it changed the life of all recyclable material pickers in Brazil,” Santos said, referring to the awareness the film garnered for the plight of the pickers. “We now have a value in society and there’s no more prejudice against the pickers. Our work was always seen as marginalized because trash is something people throw away.”

Martin Medina GRD ’97, who wrote a book on the subject of recyclable pickers around the world, reaffirmed the importance of these unrecognized industrial laborers in a brief panel discussion after the film.

“In Brazil alone their economic impact is $3 billion a year and it’s a ‘green’ occupation that reduces pollution and the cost of industry,” Medina said. “It’s a perfect example of sustainable development and poverty reduction, but there’s not a single research organization in the U.S. that studies it.”

“Wasteland” is just one film among many to be shown all week across campus as part of the Environmental Film Festival at Yale. In its third year, the festival seeks to attract undergraduates, graduate students and New Haven residents alike. Chandra Simon FES ’12, the executive director of the festival, said the organizers tried to select films that would be relevant to the local community while still engaging the audience on worldwide issues.

“I don’t know of any other environmental film festival in the world that is free and open to the public,” Simon said. “Film is such a powerful medium because it appeals to everyone and is accessible to all. Even though ‘Wasteland’ takes place in Brazil, recycling and garbage is something that relates to everyone in New Haven.”

The festival will run until this Sunday, April 3.

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